As the gaunt man led us through the doorway, I must have held my breath. What was I doing here? And what, if anything, did I expect to find within these walls? Since arriving in Alexandria there had been many moments when I doubted my sense of purpose and direction. What had begun as a search for meaning, a journey into my soul, had led me rather bizarrely to the one place I felt I had no right to be. What did I really know about the world? I had no education other than the words of the prophets and whatever wisdom I had discovered in the hills of faraway Judea. I was not a scholar or even a student. I could read and write, and interpret passages from the Scripture, applying their teachings to the challenges I faced in my life. I knew how to survive in the harshest environments when others would surely perish but, when it came to the politics of human affairs, I was woefully ignorant.
As I entered that room for the first time my instinct was to step back, as though the ground had fallen away at my feet. I might have done so had the sound of the wooden door closing firmly behind us not stopped me dead. My first impression was one of light and space, and of a ceiling so high it was like something from a dream. When I turned, I saw that the guardian of the room had disappeared. No doubt he had returned to his vigil, the silver key tucked safely inside his pocket. If I expected the old man to explain our reason for being there I was disappointed. His expression gave nothing away and I suspected I would have to learn the mystery of this room for myself. As a boy, I was terrified by tales of dark labyrinths and chambers constructed like blind tunnels leading nowhere; perhaps solving this mystery would open more doors into more passages, leading us further and further into the depths of the library. The idea was thrilling yet also unsettling.
I looked around me, marvelling at the sunlight that filled the space. After the near darkness of the other rooms this seemed like something of a miracle. The source of the light was a huge domed window set into the ceiling, each panel of glass coloured in subtle shades of bronze, amber and ivory. The effect was breathtaking, weaving sunlight into gold. The room appeared empty. There were no tables or stools, no shelves crammed with manuscripts, no cloaked figures leaning over their studies. The walls were bare stone as was the floor, and from where I stood I saw no carvings or other decoration. What might have seemed cold and unwelcoming was actually nothing of the sort.
Instead, sunlight softened every surface and the entire space shimmered and sparkled.
I walked slowly around the perimeter of the room, treading cautiously so as not to disturb the silence. Looking up, I noticed the enormous, beamed ceiling was supported by the same stone pillars I had seen everywhere in the library, stoic giants bearing the weight of an entire building on their shoulders. They formed a colonnade, enclosing the space on all sides and drawing my attention to the very centre of the room. Here, the floor dropped away, forming a sunken altar accessed by three marble steps. The altar itself was also made of marble, its smooth surfaces lit by the sunlight streaming from the window above. I suspected this was no accident. The space was obviously designed by a master architect, the altar crafted with absolute precision and care. Every line and angle was perfect, receiving the light and redirecting it out into the room.
Whether it was the intense silence or the strangeness of my environment I was not sure, but I found myself feeling self-conscious. I was uncomfortably aware of my body, which felt far too heavy and solid for its surroundings. By contrast, everything else in the room seemed to flow like water: one surface merged into another and colours shivered in the air. It was difficult to know where to place myself without feeling awkward. I turned to the old man, hoping for reassurance. He was standing by the closed door, arms folded across his chest, looking relaxed and at ease. He did not speak but returned my gaze with confidence and self-assurance. There was no doubt he was in his element here, while I felt like a stranger at a party. The atmosphere in the room intensified, growing thick and charged. My legs struggled to hold the weight of my body and I reached out to steady myself against the wall. When I felt I could bear it no longer the old man’s voice broke the silence, his words echoing off stone.
“As you can see, there is much more to the museum than ink and old parchment. You are standing at the heart of the library, a room not everyone is permitted to enter. It may look empty but I assure you it is not.”
As he spoke, I realised I could use the sound of his voice to anchor me to the floor. Its deep, rich tones drew me back into my body and calmed whatever anxieties I was feeling. By some monumental effort I managed to concentrate on his words. The old man unfolded his arms and began to pace back and forth, his steps deliberate and measured.
“When you asked me if this was a temple of God, you were closer to the truth than you might realise. In some ways this is a temple, for it contains the very foundations of wisdom.” He looked at me sharply, checking I was listening before continuing.
“When we create, whether it is great art, philosophy or scientific knowledge, we dive into an ocean of forces far beyond our understanding. Within this ocean the infinite is possible. We are steered by more than our reason, more than imagination, more than the limits of what we perceive ourselves to be. However, if we are to harness this potential we must be willing to leave behind the security of everything that ties us to this world, all the false notions and beliefs which have defined our thinking. Only then can we commune with the gods and they with us.”
If, up until this point, I had struggled to understand the old man’s words, I had no such trouble now. My attention had narrowed to the sharpest point, discerning his meanings and intentions with ease. It was an eerie feeling, like being inside both his thoughts and my own at the same time. I did not have to strain to maintain concentration. The words themselves guided me as images sparked in my mind. I had never been the most dedicated of students, achieving some success without ever excelling at my studies. One or two of the boys in the synagogue had made it look easy, while I had struggled to apply myself without getting distracted by more pressing matters: what the world might look like from inside a falcon’s egg, or whether the snail in its shell sleeps with its eyes open or closed. The more our teacher droned on, the more unruly my thoughts would become until they could stand it no longer, breaking free and flying for freedom. If those boys could see me now, what would they think? I was standing at the centre of the world, surrounded by the knowledge of its greatest artists and thinkers.
Had I escaped the prison of one classroom only to find myself trapped inside another? That would be a cruel fate indeed. And yet, there was something about the old man’s words that seized my imagination. They were not borrowed from some old manuscript and passed off as new, nor were they offered out of habit or duty. Like the room itself they seemed alive and full of light, and I could not help but listen. There were so many things I did not know, enough to fill these walls a thousand times over. But I trusted my instinct, and that instinct told me there was truth in what the old man spoke.